Turkey and its foreign policy in the time of Gul - Erdogan - Davutoglu

Posted in Europe , Asia , Broader Middle East | 05-Mar-10 | Author: Corneliu Pivariu

Turkey's President Abdullah Gul (L) welcomes Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

"In 2023, when the country will celebrate 100 years since the creation of the modern Turkish state, I see Turkey as a full EU member, after having fulfilled all the membership requests, living in peace with its neighbors, integrated with the neighbor regions on economic level and with a common security vision, an effective player in the regions where we have national interests, active in all global issues and within the first 10 economies in the world"

(Ahmed Davutoglu - at the ambassadors' reunion, 2010)

In late January 2010, in the town of Mardin - the capital of the homonym province in south-eastern Turkey, not far from the borders to Syria, Iraq and Iran - the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu has organized the annual reunion with the Turkish ambassadors abroad, a common meeting in all modern foreign ministries.

The location probably aimed to transmit a certain message by its very choice, as Mardin is a small town with less than one million inhabitants but where, alongside the Turks, there are inhabitants who speak Kurdish and Arabic, and there was an old Christian community, disappeared after the violent acts that happened in the region in 1980 and 1990.

Ahmet Davutoglu, appointed foreign minister in May 2009, opens new gates in Turkey's foreign policy. However, his contribution does not start from scratch, but it is rooted in the previous foreign policy decisions, which we believe he is able to bring to good use and enhance them with new values within the current geopolitical situation. In fact, Ahmet Davutoglu himself is not so new in the Turkish foreign policy, as shown by his foreign minister years. He is a university professor, and he led the department of international affairs at Beykent University in Istanbul. After that, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, he became foreign policy advisor of premier Erdogan. From his numerous articles and books published, we mention "Strategic Depth: Turkey's Place in the World", appeared in 2001 but not yet translated from Turkish language.

From the numerous achievements of current Turkish foreign policy, we mention the substantial improvement of the relations with Syria, considering that when the AKP government came to power in 2002, the two countries were in relations of "at least lacking mutual trust", as Davutoglu characterized them. Between 2003 and 2009, over 50 various agreements were signed between the two states, culminating in both countries lifting their visa restrictions - the cancellation of entry visa was signed in the second half of 2009. Such annulment was possible due to an intense diplomatic dialogue, over 35 delegations from Turkey having traveled to Damascus during that period, which is to say a delegation every two months.

We need to mention that Ismael Cern's foreign policy between 1997 and 2002 played an important role for this positive development, as well as the fact that Turkish president Ahmet Necdet Sezer participated to Hafez al-Assad's funeral in the year 2000.

In the latest years, there has been new positive development in Turkey's relations with Iran, both on political and economic level. Ahmet Davutoglu's visit in Tehran on 16 February 2010 aimed, among others, to test the strength of these relations. In fact, it is considered this visit would not affect Turkey, no matter its result, mentions the Turkish daily journal Today's Zaman, quoting a British expert: "if it (this action) leads to getting an agreement in uranium enrichment, Turkey will gain prestige, as being the one that facilitated the agreement. If no agreement is reached, Turkey will gain trust from both parts, from Iran - being a friend in a time when Tehran has very few friends in the world, and from the USA, for having continued its commitment".

The visit in Tehran has not produced any concrete results for the public to see, but it did underline the very good relations between the two countries and their determination to keep developing their collaboration.

At the same time, we have to mention the signing of some historical protocols with Armenia in October 2009 at Geneva. Supported by international mediation, Turkey contributed to finding a way to resume the relations between the two countries, broken in 1994, as well as to re-study their common past from the beginning of last century. Comparing the relations to the ones between Turkey and Syria, which are now close allies, it is however premature to recognize a successful reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia, and that is definitely a major challenge for the Turkish foreign policy.

Also, Turkey has been involved in mediation between Israel and Syria, between Fatah and Hamas, between various rival groups in Lebanon - country where both political and military and economic bilateral relations have been improved, between Afghanistan and Pakistan, by both the recent conference organized in Istanbul and by the Turkish participating at the conference of Afghani and Pakistani presidents later held in London. This way, Turkey plays an increasingly important role in the developments of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East, the Caucasus and Asia.

Preoccupied to meet its strategic objective to integrate within the European Union, Turkey has not neglected the amelioration of its relations in the Balkans, and so the relations with Serbia have been significantly improved and are now characterized as "excellent", as proven by president Gul's visit to Belgrade and Davutoglu visiting the same country twice. Also, four trilateral reunions Turkey-Bosnia Herzegovina-Serbia have been organized during the last four months.

In his foreign policy, Davutoglu has applied the principle that he promoted under the name "zero problems with the neighbors" ever since 2003, when he was foreign policy advisor to the prime minister. Many Turkish politicians at the time considered it an idealistic and utopist principle. In fact, even without naming it as such, the building of this principle has started ever since the late 1990s, when the foreign minister Ismail Cern promoted the policy of normalization of most difficult relations, the ones with Greece. At the same time, Cern also promoted the formula of a "realistic" foreign policy, highlighting the unique geopolitical position of Turkey as a bridge connecting the East and the West, as Turkey is Asian and European altogether.

The Turkish political analyst Soli Ozel believes that the current foreign policy of Turkey has not started from zero: "from what they have done, nothing started from zero, except the opening to Armenia. They have built on what already existed and they did that with passion." Volker Perthes, the director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin has the same opinion: "I believe the principle ("zero problems with the neighbors") is a reinterpretation of Atatürk's motto "Peace in the country, peace abroad". Given the location of Turkey and its neighbors with which it has numerous problems, it was logical that the Turkish foreign policy should be heading in this direction."

In the current success of the Turkish foreign policy, an important role was played both by the development of the domestic situation, much more stable than during the last decades of the century past, marked by military coups d'etat, and also the changes of the external geopolitical situation from which we mention: the war in Iraq, the situation in Iran, the problems of Russia within the near vicinity, the American limited potential of pressure caused by their engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the lack of geopolitical perspective for the political leaders of most of the important Arab countries.

However, the success of "zero problems with the neighbors" policy is seriously endangered by three important issues: the occupation of Northern Cyprus, the relations with Armenia, the issue of rights for the Kurd minority.

The negotiations continue between the Greek and Turkish presidents of Cyprus, but no progress has been made to a solution soon, which could compromise the accession of Turkey to the European Union.

The agreements between Ankara and Yerevan, signed in October 2009 in Geneva, have not yet been ratified by the parliaments of the two countries, and the decision of the Armenian Constitutional Court on this matter complicates things even further, and in Turkey there is the opinion that this particular decision gives another interpretation to the agreements. The relations with Azerbaijan on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh complicate the situation even more. Furthermore, the American Administration might adopt this spring a resolution condemning the genocide against the Armenians.

As for the "Kurd initiative" that the Turkish government was announcing ever since last year, it is still in an incipient stage and there is increasing opposition to it in the country. Its effect could cost the AKP government a price they might not be able to pay.

A term recently appeared in characterizing the Turkish foreign policy, and that is "neo-Ottomanism", interpreted in two ways: positively - as a foreign policy deriving from Turkey's experience as an imperial power for a long time in its vicinity, and negatively - as hegemonic reasons hidden behind a shrewd foreign policy, aiming to revive some ambitions of important regional power. However, we tend to agree with Omer Taspinar - program director at Brookings Institution in Washington, who was saying that: "I believe neo-Ottomanism is a form of balance between the East and the West and they do it better than the Kemalists, they are not only against the East, they are now against the West as well... Of course, it (neo-Ottomanism, author's note) has an imperial vision, but not in the sense of territorial ambitions... Let's imagine Turkey as a regional superpower and see things in a balanced way. Let's try to get the region out of decline".

Of course, in order to achieve these foreign policy goals, Turkey must have a strong economy. The long-term IMF estimates, taken by Anatolia agency, show that in 2026 Turkey will be on the 13th place in the world, over important economies like the ones in Italy and Canada. Turkish GDP at the end of 2010 is estimated to place Turkey on the 16th place worldwide.

However, to have an accurate image, we need to mention the issues that Turkey is confronted with on domestic level, especially concerning the relationship between the civilian political power and the military one, which still sees itself as the lawful defender of the secularity of the Turkish state. In this respect the case of Ergenekon, approached by us in detail in our previous issues, is also clear evidence, new evidence bringing new arrests. Among these there is the finding of a document which would have targeted to declare premier Recep Tayyp Erdogan incapable to do his job, for medical reasons (Today's Zaman on 17 December 2010). Also, there is the attempt to bring a certain state of insecurity of the current power, by various interpretations to the length of president Abdullah Gül's mandate. According to the same daily journal (Today's Zaman), even the president himself does not know whether his mandate will last for five or seven years. We remind you that Gül was elected president after the last parliamentary elections and the parliament constituted after 22 July 2007. On 21 October the same year, there was a referendum in Turkey, on the duration of the presidential mandate, for five or seven years. The electorate voted for a five year mandate. Law specialists believe that Gül had been elected president when the duration of the mandate was seven years, and the result of the referendum cannot be applied retroactively, which means Gül will stay in office until 2014. However, it seems the MPs in the party that supported Gül (AKP) have not themselves reached consensus on the duration of his mandate yet, and he could also run for a new mandate in 2012.

Eliminating some stipulations about the potential intervention of the military within the political life in order to preserve the constitutional order and the secular state, it is an action and a debated very closely watched in the Turkish domestic politics. The last measure taken was to abolish the Protocol on Cooperation for Security and Public Order (also known as EMASYA). The protocol was signed on 7 July 1997, after the military coup d'etat on 28 February 2007, between the minister of the interior and the minister of defense, and it allowed the military authorities to conduct activities of collecting information and operations in the civilian administrations, with no need for approval from the local civilian authorities. The protocol was abolished also with the agreement of the military leaders, as the Chief of General Staff, general Ilker Bashbug, appreciated that Turkey does not need such a protocol. He declared that "No army wishes to intervene in social incidents. What army could want to provoke the people? Would we (the army - author's note) like this idea? Certainly not."

In fact, adapting the legal stipulations on the civilian-military relations in Turkey in accordance with the legal stipulations of the European Union in the field is a condition to accomplish within the process of Turkey's ascension to the EU, and important progress has been made in this respect.

In conclusion, Turkey could continue to play a bigger role, of a regional power in its geopolitical and geographical area, where the interests of Russians, Americans, Europeans, Arabs, Iranians, Asians and others are mixed together. Its success will depend not only on its shrewd foreign policy (for which some specialists believe the Turkish authorities are understaffed and they need more personnel in order to achieve the current strategic objectives). It also depends on the development of the domestic situation, on the interests and actions of some international actors in the area, from among which Russia plays a crucial role. Probably Iran will not be very delighted if Turkey's role increases in the area, as a Muslim state with Sunni majority, Turkey could compromise the Iranian plans to expand Shiite practices into the Middle East, which until now have been very well served by Hezbollah, Hamas and the privileged relations with Syria.